By Ashley E. Lyon
What does Selah mean?
The word is prominent in the Psalms, occurring 71 times (as well as 3 in Habakkuk)— but what does it mean?
From antiquity to the present, the Psalter has been one of the most popular and beloved books of the Bible. The theological message of the Psalter is presented through Hebrew poetry, which is both beautiful and (oftentimes) mysterious. Hebrew poetry is notoriously hard to understand; it often leaves students and scholars alike scratching their heads. We have no lists of rules from antiquity for interpreting the Psalter, either as individual psalms or as a collective whole. What’s more, rare words permeate the Psalter’s pages— including Selah. This obscure word has been deemed the “puzzle of ordinary readers and the despair of scholars.”
How has Selah been understood?
Several proposals have been made over the last 100 years or so for the meaning of Selah. Though most scholars view it as a musical term, some other common views include these:
- Selah indicates a pause in the text.
- Selah is a synonym of Hebrew words that mean “forever.”
- Selah is a derivative of the Hebrew root salal (note the s and l), which means to “raise voices in praise” or “make the instruments louder.”
- Selah is an acronym for a phrase in Numbers 14:19, “Please forgive the sins of this people” (this option is found mainly in rabbinic tradition).
These are all good suggestions; but they assume a liturgical sense behind the term Selah. I am skeptical of this viewpoint—for reasons I will explain in a moment.
It’s all Greek
The Septuagint—the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, abbreviated with “LXX”—does not provide the clarity on the meaning of Selah that today’s readers might wish for. It appears to translate the Hebrew Selah with the Greek diapsalma, a word that is itself obscure. Scholars guess that it, too, is a liturgical term indicating a pause in the music.
But, oddly, diapsalma occurs in a few places in the LXX where Selah does not—and vice versa: there are places where the Hebrew has Selah and the LXX lacks diapsalma. This suggests that, perhaps, the Greek translators did not know what Selah meant, or possibly that they interpreted the term in a liturgical sense as well.
Also, there are some ancient Greek sources that, instead of translating the word Selah, choose instead to transliterate it, to make the same sounds with a different alphabet. This is what translators sometimes do when they don’t know the meaning of a word.
Ancient translations of the Hebrew Bible, in other words, do not answer our question about the meaning of Selah.
My book, Reassessing Selah, brings to light an important clue to the meaning of this sometimes frustrating but always fascinating Hebrew word. I argue that the word is more appropriately seen as a literary term than as a liturgical one. While Selah could have been used to indicate a pause in the text, I demonstrate that the word highlights thematic threads that run throughout the Hebrew Psalter.
The interpretive tradition known as “form criticism” has dominated the study of the Psalms, and in that tradition, the Psalms are most fundamentally musical forms. This is one of the reasons why the view of Selah as a musical term has held such sway.
But look at the very first psalm to contain Selah, Psalm 3. Notice that Selah occurs three times throughout the psalm—and always at important transitions in the cycle of lament (sin, judgment, and redemption). In Psalm 3:2 it marks the sin of those who seek the speaker’s life; 3:4 situates God on his holy hill (place of judgment); and 3:8 marks the redemptive/salvific nature of those who trust in him.
And Selah’s literary purpose shines through in other ancient texts. There are fragments of psalms found at Qumran that include Selah, and they, too, use it to highlight themes of sin, judgment, and salvation. Portions of psalms in Aramaic incantation bowls and ancient lintels also include Selah in a literary manner as they serve as written blessings over those who own them.
I originally embarked on a journey hopeful that I could settle the debate on Selah once and for all. I found some amazing insights along the way, and I even uncovered brand-new information which adds to our understanding of the term. I now have a better appreciation for the complexity of Hebrew poetry, and I read the Psalter in a new light. But I confess that the meaning of Selah may remain a mystery in this lifetime.
Tips for studying puzzling Hebrew words
Selah is just one of many fascinating mysteries in Scripture. As readers of God’s Word, we should always have an inquisitive mind that seeks understanding. And even if our inquiry is only about a single word of Scripture (like the Hebrew words hesed or hayyil), the number-one key to understanding it will always be context—more specifically, the literary context in which the word is used.
This article originally appeared in Bible Study Magazine. Ashley E. Lyon is Professor of Hebrew at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies and is the author of Reassessing Selah.
Take a look at how Logos can help you do Bible word studies (even the free version available on mobile app, desktop app, and web app).